Predicting the Astros Opening Day roster
The offseason flies by when you are the newly crowned World Champions, but Houston Astros baseball is around the corner.
Unless players are participating in the World Baseball Classic, pitchers and catchers report to spring training on Feb. 16 and position players on Feb. 21. Pitchers and catchers participating in the WBC arrive on Feb. 13, and position players in the WBC on Feb. 16, with WBC games beginning March 8.
The Astros have six players participating in the WBC: Kyle Tucker (USA), Jeremy Peña (Dominican Republic), Framber Valdez (DR), Cristian Javier (DR), Bryan Abreu (DR), and Rafael Montero (DR). All six of these players are guaranteed to make the Opening Day 26-man roster.
With Spring Training right around the corner, let’s take a look at the most likely scenarios for the Astros Opening Day roster.
Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Lance McCullers Jr., Luis Garcia, José Urquidy, Hunter Brown.
The Astros enjoy the luxury of having six legitimate starting pitchers on their roster when most teams can’t find four. Houston took off once they moved to the six-man rotation in 2022, leading to career seasons from Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, and Cristian Javier. The bullpen reaped the benefits of better-starting pitching and turned in the top season in MLB as a result.
Entering 2022, the Astros had workload management concerns with every starter not named Jake Odorizzi. They will enter 2023 with workload management concerns with every starter not named Luis Garcia.
The Astros had four starters in Valdez, Verlander, Urquidy, and Garcia make at least 28 starts last season, a run of tremendous health buoyed by the six-man rotation and the extra days of rest it afforded. Javier made 25 starts. No other team in baseball had more than three starters make at least 28 starts, and none had five starters make at least 25 either. It is a testament to how difficult it is to get a rotation through a season healthy.
Barring significant injury or extreme struggle by a specific pitcher, I expect the Astros will continue to exercise their starting pitching strength by keeping the six-man rotation.
Ryan Pressly, Rafael Montero, Bryan Abreu, Héctor Neris, Ryne Stanek, Seth Martinez, Phil Maton
The best bullpen in 2022 returns essentially intact. Martinez pitched well in limited action for the Astros last season (2.09 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 38.2 IP w/ 2.71 K/BB ratio), making him the odds-on favorite for one of the final two spots in the pen along with Maton (3.84 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 3.04 K/BB ratio in 65.2 IP). Maton has an MLB contract for $2.55 million, so barring a trade, he will be on the roster in the low-leverage part of the pen.
The Bats – Locks:
Martín Maldonado, José Abreu, José Altuve, Jeremy Peña, Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker, Yordan Alvarez, Michael Brantley, Chas McCormick.
These players essentially make up the standard lineup, with Yordan and Brantley sharing LF/DH. Every one of these players should be in the starting lineup on Opening Day, health permitting.
The Bats – Battles:
Mauricio Dubón, David Hensley, Jake Meyers, Korey Lee, Yainer Diaz.
Barring a late signing, these five players are the most likely battling for four spots.
Dubón is not a lock, but he is close. Dusty loves him; he’s extremely versatile and plays solid defense at 2B/SS/CF. Unless he gets injured or is abysmal in the spring, he will make the roster as Dusty’s top utility player. His defensive versatility is more important than his bat for the Astros.
Hensley has also shown versatility, having played all four infield positions and left field at Sugar Land in 2022, and playing all of those spots except first base for the Astros last season. Hensley is a decent bat with an excellent approach at the plate. He is likely already an upgrade over the oft-injured Aledmys Diaz. In 379 AB at Sugar Land, Hensley slashed .298/.420/.478. That on-base percentage is tremendous, as he draws a ton of walks. He also tallied 10 HRs and 30 doubles while stealing 20 bases.
Yainer Diaz and Korey Lee will be battling for the backup catcher spot, presuming no other additions at catcher are made. Diaz is currently the No. 3 prospect in the Astros system. Once considered a ‘throw-in’ in the Myles Straw-Phil Maton deal, Diaz has become the steal of that trade.
Diaz raked .306/.356/.542 last season in 445 AB between Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Sugar Land, blasting 25 HRs, and drove in 96 runs with an .898 OPS. He also threw out 33% of would-be base stealers last season. If his bat translates, he could wind up being the starting catcher by the break. He will have to hit in spring to get his chance, though. Diaz has played 198 games in his minor league career at catcher, 48 at 1B, three in LF, and five in RF. He offers some versatility in that he can also play first base, but that is about it.
The same applies for Korey Lee, the No. 7 prospect in their system, according to MLB.com. Lee certainly has the defensive tools to handle the position at the MLB level, but his bat is less developed than Diaz’s. Lee hit for power at Triple-A Sugar Land in 2022 with 25 HRs in 404 AB, but he also struck out 127 times. Lee slashed .238/.307/.483 in 2022 for the Space Cowboys. The potential is certainly there, but his pitch recognition and contact skills need to continue to develop. A strong spring would get him on the roster. As a minor leaguer in the Astros system, Lee has played 158 games at catcher and 21 games between 1B/3B/LF. The Astros view him exclusively as a catcher.
Since Lee is essentially only a catcher and Diaz is limited to C/1B, it’s possible the loser of this battle winds up at Sugar Land to get regular at-bats versus riding the bench for extended stretches.
Jake Meyers is also in the mix, but realistically could be the odd man out. With Yordan and Brantley sharing LF/DH duties, Meyers needs to make the team with his center field play and his bat, as Dusty has more confidence in Dubon right now. Meyers was a 2021 revelation at Sugar Land, as his hitting finally caught up with his elite defensive abilities (Meyers was the top defensive outfielder in the Astros MiLB system in 2021). After crushing pitches to a .343/.408/1.006 tune at Triple-A, Meyers was called up to Houston at the deadline in 2021.
While it took a little while for his playing time to be consistent as the Astros experimented with Kyle Tucker in center field for a bit, plus sharing time with Chas McCormick, Meyers posted a respectable .260/.323/.438 line in 146 AB with the big league club through the end of the season and was essentially the top center fielder on the team going into the playoffs.
Meyers suffered a torn labrum in his shoulder trying to steal a home run off Gavin Sheets in Game 4 of the 2021 ALDS in Chicago. He slammed into the wall with his left (throwing) shoulder at full force. Meyers required offseason surgery and struggled to recover. Meyers was first activated off the IL on June 24 and hit reasonably well over his first 65 plate appearances (.267/.308/.400), but it didn’t last. Meyers went into a protracted slump where he could not demonstrate the ability to catch up to high-velocity pitches as he previously had, and he was optioned back to Sugar Land on Aug. 30 after struggling to a .209 average and .255 OBP.
Meyers rediscovered his swing and his confidence back in Sugar Land, where he hit .337 with a .994 OPS over roughly the final month of the Triple-A season before being recalled to Houston Sep. 29. If Meyers can show he is able to bring the bat in the spring, Houston may have no choice but to keep him. A slow spring will all but guarantee him a trip down the 59, with Dubon serving as the backup center fielder.
Initially, I think the most likely loser of the five-man race for the four spots is the loser of the Lee versus Diaz battle to be Maldonado’s backup. Meyers’ ability to play the outfield and speed make him a better fit off the bench than a third catcher.
While most of the roster is set, it will still be an interesting spring training for the defending champs as they round out their opening-day roster.